Unlike most constitutional monarchies that stay above the political fray, the late King Bhumibol often sent his men to rescue Thailand from crises - such as the appointment of Anand Panyarachun as Prime Minister after the 1992 protests. However, these royal interventions were not always effective, and had in fact eroded the monarchy's popular legitimacy.
“Shane! Come back!”, King Bhumibol said to former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun during a royal audience at the time of the latter’s return to the Thai premiership following the bloody incidents of May 1992.
Anand had first assumed the premiership after the Thai military seized power by means of a coup mounted in February of the previous year. He disclosed this private conversation with the late king to the prominent journalist Dominic Faulder, author of the recent biography Anand Panyarachun and the Making of Modern Thailand (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2019).
The network worked well when the late king had to deal with elected governments, but it did not always yield effective results.
The late king’s Hollywood allusion brought a moment of relief in the aftermath of protests to oust an “unelected” prime minister and retired general as prime minister. The security forces attempt to suppress those protests had claimed at least 52 lives and led to scores of injuries. Ironically, Anand was himself not an elected member of parliament, but the protestors accepted him, as the king’s choice for prime minister during a time of crisis.
Anand has never admitted to membership in what Duncan McCargo has, famously and influentially, characterised as the “network monarchy” that shaped so many developments in Thailand for several decades starting in the 1980s. But the former prime minister acknowledged to his biographer Faulder that he was a “liberal royalist”. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call him a Bhumibolist, given that he was recalled to serve as the head of government for the monarch after the latter’s intervention at a time of political crisis.
McCargo saw the late chairman of the Privy Council, former premier General Prem Tinsulanonda, as King Bhumibol’s’ main proxy in the network that the latter used for intervention in political processes during the last two decades of the twentieth century. McCargo assigned Anand a prominent place in the network, too.
Contrary to the norm among constitutional monarchies, whereby the royal institution stays above politics, the late Thai monarch for decades sent his men to rescue the kingdom from every crisis. He deployed Sanya Dharmasakti after the October 1973 student uprising, Thanin Kraivixian after massacre of students at Thammasat University in October 1976, Anand after the bloody protests of May 1992, and Surayud Chulanont after the September 2006 coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Among these four men, all but Anand were or would become members of the Privy Council, the sovereign’s advisory body.
While King Bhumibol came out to defuse the crisis associated with 1992’s “Black May” incidents and to restore peace, recourse to politics offered no way out of the country’s crisis. The elections of the previous March had failed to bring to power politicians good enough to run the government. Hence, House Speaker Arthit Ourairat resolved the dilemma by announcing the return of Anand to the premiership.
Faulder offers an account of how Arthit brought Anand back. He was not alone when he made the final call to Anand to convey his decision “from under the stairs at the Chitralada Villa”, King Bhumibol’s residence, to relate what “represented, in effect, a fait accompli.”
Faulder quotes Anand in his own words saying, “I might jokingly say I was drafted into it, but I never said I was forced into it.” “Draft” in Thai context refers to compulsory recruitment for military service to the kingdom. It could be ordered only in the name of the king.
In McCargo’s understanding, the network monarchy accommodated both conservative ex-military officers like Prem and liberal civilians like both Anand and former royal physician Prawase Wasi. The network worked well when the late king had to deal with elected governments, but it did not always yield effective results.
While admitting the role of monarchy in politics, Anand also numbered among the key drafters of the 1997 “people’s constitution”, the charter deemed one of Thailand’s most democratic both in its origins and content. This constitution effectively prevented the king from installing his own men into the premiership when Yellow Shirt protestors demanded the exercise of royal prerogative to topple the elected Prime Minister Thaksin in the first half of 2006. The 1997 constitution required that the prime minister be an elected member of parliament, a status that Anand never had.
It was again deemed an example of the work of the network monarchy when Anand was appointed by Prime Minister Thaksin, with whom he obviously had an uneasy relationship, to head the National Reconciliation Commission charged with seeking peaceful solutions to the violence and conflict in the predominantly Malay-Muslim Deep South of Thailand. The commission’s recommendations included allowing for expressions of local identity, as by making the Patani Malay dialect a “working” — not, as Faulder has it, an “official” — language in the region. But Bangkok elites, particularly the late king’s chief advisor General Prem and the military, dismissed those recommendations.
As political divisions deepened after the 2006 coup and the bloody protests that would later occur, the military-brokered government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva commissioned Anand with Prem’s blessing to head a National Reform Commission in 2010. The commission failed to yield an effective reform agenda for Thailand. The twenty-member panel stepped down when Abhisit called a snap election in March 2011. While members of the commission quoted in Faulder’s book expressed satisfaction with their work, the panel was widely criticised at the time as a mechanism for Abhisit to avoid confronting the root cause of the political conflict in Thailand, after a military crackdown killed nearly 100 people in the heart of Bangkok. While Anand claimed he did not stand in any camp in the country’s colour-coded politics, he associated most clearly and closely with the royalist Yellow Shirt group.
Thailand’s most recent two coups, those of September 2006 and May 2014, were staged for the clear purpose of ensuring smooth succession to the throne after the demise of King Bhumibol, but it would be naïve to think that Anand was a possible choice to serve as prime minister in their wake. Born in 1932, he was still healthy, and his old boss was still around. But Shane was no longer relevant, as the monarchy’s own partisanship had sent its popular legitimacy into decline.
Supalak Ganjanakhundee is a Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.